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Landrace Gardening

I have long had an interest in gardening, which has only grown more intense as I age.  I can recall early on only being interested in growing the biggest, tallest, most productive plants possible.  That meant excessive fertilization.  I then slightly altered that with black-plastic gardening.  Finally, I became interested in organic gardening.  About that time I began to have a real interest in heirloom vegetables and trying to keep these historic strains alive and well.  However, changes are underway in my gardening maturity, my way of thinking, one of which is landrace gardening.

Let’s step back a bit and talk about heirlooms.  My interest in heirlooms wasn’t just about preserving the historic strains, but it was also about avoiding genetically modified crops, or GMOs.  Both of those things are still important to me.  However, I have begun to realize that I was confusing myself.  I thought heirloom vegetables were the only right way and that all hybrids were bad.  In other words, I was equating hybrids to GMOs.

I heard all the hype about hybrids: that saved seeds do not produce true to their parent, the plant is modified in some fashion by humans, and that these are somehow created plants.  The truth is, I believed the hype, but I didn’t use my head.  If I may be candid, however, I still avoid store-bought hybrids, but hybrids themselves are not bad.

I don’t want to spend this post getting into the topic of GMOs except to say there is a difference.  GMOs are plants that have been modified genetically in some fashion that could likely never occur in nature.  That, my friends, is something I have no interest in.

A few years ago while perusing gardening sites, I ran across a gentleman named Joseph Lofthouse at a site called Homegrown Goodness.  I don’t remember what my initial thoughts were, but it there must have been things he said that I liked, and it wasn’t long until I began to really appreciate the projects he was working on.  You see, Joseph gardens in a unique climate that cannot handle many plants grown in other places, but due to his selective seed saving and landrace gardening, Joseph has produced landrace vegetables that grow well in his climate.  His story of growing open-pollinated cantalope is amazing, even though it is just one of his success stories.  In short, Joseph’s plants are in a battle of the Survival of the Fittest.  The seeds of the winners each year go on to live another year.

Since learning about Joseph and his gardening ideas, I have implemented this in my garden gradually.  For example, I am now in my second season of growing Joseph’s Popcorn, from which I am saving the best seed each year.  I am also in my second year of landracing okra.  Other plants that are on my list are watermelon and Joseph’s cantaloupe.

Despite the changes in my attitude toward hybrids in a landrace project, I still have an appreciation for heirloom plants and the history some of them have.  For example, I am growing two ancient corns this year that are both used for flour.  I intend on continuing to save pure seeds from each of these plants using a similar “survival of the fittest” technique, even though they will remain true to their strain.  Another plant I want to follow this same protocol on is Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, which happen to be my favorite tomatoes.  There are some winter squash I want to also save seeds from using this protocol; however, due to the ease at which they can be controlled, I will landrace some winter squash while I am at it.

My goals have adapted over the years, but I am really liking where this is going: organic gardening using “survival of the fittest” selective seed saving from open-pollinated plants which may include heirlooms or landrace varieties. Will that goal adapt more over time?  I am sure it will, but the thing that won’t change is my desire to grow tasty, healthy food that is far better than what can be bought in a store.


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